Shaman's Crossing, by Robin Hobb

Eos, September 2005

Reviewed by Lisa Goldstein, September 2005

In an interview in these pages in April, Susanna Clarke said, "From an English person's point of view, you look across at America and you get the impression there is a sort of fable, a myth of America: an ideal of what America really is. Sometimes it feels to me as though we don't have a fable of England, of Britain...."

I had to wonder about this, when I read it. England has King Arthur, Robin Hood and Maid Marion, Oberon and Titania. The US has stories about hitchhikers who turn out to be dead.

Oddly enough, Robin Hobb's book came a few months later, and in a sense it is "a myth of America." The technology is somewhere in the early 19th century; there are cavalry officers and Plainspeople, small villages at the frontier and a great unknown beyond that. The landscape here would be familiar to Americans in the same way that Tolkien's is to the British.

Hobb does not set up a simple correspondence or allegory, of course — her imagination is more fertile than that. Her Plainspeople, for example, twine magic charms in their hair and their horses' manes, but they are vulnerable to iron; if they are shot, the bullet seems to do more harm because it's made of iron than because it penetrates their skin. And beyond the Plainspeople live the Specks, a strange people with dappled skin who seem to have their own form of magic.

Navare Burvell, the narrator, is the sheltered son of a nobleman, a bit of a prig, really, but a nice enough fellow for all that. Because he's the second son, he is destined to become an officer in the king's army. But before he goes off to the Cavalla Academy, his father calls upon a Plainsman to teach him to hunt and ride like the Plainspeople. The training goes badly wrong, and Navare's fate becomes entwined with that of a Speck woman, someone who wants to stop the expansion of Navare's people.

Unfortunately that's nearly the last we see of the Plainspeople (though I have hopes of future books). Off Navare goes to the Cavalla Academy, where for the first time in his life he encounters prejudice — because his father is a newly minted noble, his plans for becoming an officer are opposed and ridiculed by the older, more established gentry. And every so often he seems to sense the Speck woman, who is determined to make use of him and whose desires go against everything he has ever learned.

Navare takes his time telling his story. His style, like the technology of his world, seems to come from the 19th century, with long, leisurely chapters taken up with aspects of life at the academy; there's a lot of what Holden Caulfield memorably called "all that David Copperfield kind of crap." But in an age when people are said to have short attention spans, when authors are urged to kill someone in the first ten pages and seemingly every movie begins with a car chase, this can be very refreshing.

And something interesting happens as a result of this slow pace. Because Hobb spends her time building up this world, painstakingly rendering the small details that add to verisimilitude, the world acquires a weight and a believability, so that at odd times you find yourself thinking about these students, wondering what's been happening with them lately. There's a truthfulness to her creation that is lacking in some of the more slapdash fantasies.

(This sort of thing can go to extremes, though, exasperating even the most enthusiastic reader of 19th- century novels. I don't know how many times we're told that the second son of a noble becomes a soldier, but the first two or three mentions would seem to be enough.)

The pace quickens for the ending, and the two plotlines (the Speck woman's machinations and the nobles' dislike of upstarts and their sons) dovetail smoothly. Shaman's Crossing can be read as a standalone novel, but it's actually the first of a trilogy, and the world has been created so meticulously that there are any number of interesting places Hobb can go. As someone who grew up with the myth of America, I wonder what lies across all those wide plains.

First published in Locus Magazine

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